Hedging the Heart

Five Preconditions of an Authentic Human Formation

Human formation — that pillar of seminary life often affirmed and rarely understood. Certainly, we believe it to be the basis of all priestly formation, and remain convinced by the words of St. John Paul II: “The priest should mold his human personality in such a way that it becomes a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of humanity.”1 But when we look at the edifice of our priestly formation programs, have we really brought this truth to bear on our seminary life with the full force and significance of its meaning? Human formation is intrinsically challenging because it defies the programmatic. In other words, it cannot be measured and regulated like the other pillars of the life, precisely because it is not simply one pillar among others. 

A recent survey of newly ordained priests revealed how the under-development of human formation is fostering an experience of dissatisfaction in certain areas of their life. Despite a general spirit of satisfaction with the ministry, as well as preparation for it, there were five areas that are continually dissatisfying young clergy: administration and personnel, burnout from excessive workload, and poor relationships with pastors, bishops and brother priests. All five of these areas point to the same exigency — the need to develop a more robust and authentic human formation in seminary life. 

The effort to deepen human formation in our seminary program is always faced with the same temptation — pragmatization. No doubt, we need concrete benchmarks and a real method for the assessment of seminary candidates; but that can only occur once we have more firmly established how exactly one forms the humanity of a person. In the following, we will argue that no practical or programmatic formulations can be set unless five educative preconditions are set in place. These are indispensable for the fostering of true human formation; for without them, we compromise the distinctive nature of what it means to be a human, and thus miss the mark on forming a man into the fullness of his human experience of the Christian life.

In all of this, we are proposing a vision of human formation that could be called “hedging the heart.”2 For there are two ways to form a man — by using a scalpel or building a hedge. The former looks at the human heart, sees weakness and sin, and attempts formation by cutting away all that is unhealthy and diseased in a man. Its clinical and diagnostic assessment ends in the intrusive act of extrication. The result is the same as any surgery — trauma. The heart now needs long periods of healing. And if this is done with repetition, the heart will eventually atrophy, leaving an organ that, albeit free of weakness and sin, is no longer living. 

A second approach is not only non-intrusive, it does not in fact even touch that heart. It begins by understanding the heart as capable of self-rehabilitation through the healing and elevating effects of grace. Formation then is the building of a hedge around the heart, which protects its growth and permits its restoration according to its own time. It is formation, not by way of surgery, but by way of gardening. This takes seriously the true agency of formation: not the priest formator, but the Holy Trinity.3 Likewise, the man himself is an agent of his formation, not simply the object of an operation. For the only way humanity can be truly formed in a man is by way of his own freedom. As St. John Paul II wrote: “All formation, priestly formation included, is self-formation. No one can replace us in the responsible freedom we have as individual persons.”4

In the following, we will lay out the five preconditions of human formation which are nothing other than the contours of the hedge. They are not comprehensive, but rather touchpoints for the general trajectory of an authentic human formation. The first three — formation as education, milieu and heart — express the essence of human formation, while the last two describe the nature of a formative relationship that preserves this essence.  

Education Is the Art of Being Human

Priestly formation is first and foremost education. But it is education in its most expansive meaning — the art of being human. In this way, it defies any attempt to reduce it to formation to a kind of clerical job training. It is likened to the immersion of family life than to any kind of preparation for the ecclesial workforce. In this sense, the ecclesiological groundwork is already laid that is to say, the entire Christian life is precisely this kind of education. Thus, priestly formation as a distinctive form of Christian formation, transcends a mere acquisition of skill sets. As Joseph Ratzinger writes: “But because being a Christian does not mean some special skill alongside other skills but simply the correct living out of being human, we could say that we want to practice the skill of living correctly: we want to learn better the skill of skills, the art of being human.”5 The Incarnation of the God-man fully constitutes Christian existence; for that reason, the life of faith (the fundamental act of Christian existence) is expressed through the art of being human.

If priestly formation is first understood as education, then it is likewise, in the words of Luigi Giussani, “educating what is human in us.”6 The task of the educator (or in this case the formator) is first and foremost a “reawakening of the human.”7 This is more a “drawing out of the inner man” than some kind of imposition from without. In this way, man stands in more need of being reminded than of being instructed. To approach persons being educated in this way means to stake everything on their freedom, on their rationality — ultimately on something other than ourselves. But as we will come to see, this is what is remarkably unique of human formation: it is not performative and objective, but living and vital, a mysterious disclosure of the free, rational subjectivity of the other.

Once the educator re-entrusts the one being educated with his own freedom, the onus of the educational project shifts. It can no longer be conceived as a unilateral movement, a subject-object dyad; it is now fully immersed in the dialogical character of human intersubjectivity. St. John Paul II calls for this in his writings on culture; as John Hittinger summarizes: 

Each person must take on the task of becoming more human through self-education. The fundamental fact of moral education, he [John Paul II] says, is the spiritually mature man, a fully educated man who can educate himself and others. The core of education, the development of man as man, is a moral culture.8

The pursuit of purposeful self-education is then constitutive of all men aspiring to a truly human life. It is the sign of the spiritually mature man and the personal grounds of true culture. As it necessarily involves human freedom, it is likewise by necessity a moral endeavor. Only thus can priestly formation do justice to the truth of the human, envisioned as it is as an education in the art of being human.

A Milieu Is Educative

An immediate reaction to the vision of self-education elucidated above is that it falls prey to the radical individualism of our modern culture. And that is indeed a legitimate concern, or better put in Giussanian terms, a risk. Fortunately, an additional structure of human existence comes to bear on this; that man is innately communal. For this reason, a second precondition of an authentic human formation can be proposed — that the primary locus of human growth is culture, i.e. a formative milieu. 

In his writings on the meaning of tradition, Yves Congar articulates the power of milieu in the formation of human life:

We do not bring up a child by giving him lectures in morality and deportment, but rather by placing him in an environment having a high tone of conduct and good manners, whose principles, rarely expressed as abstract theories, will be imparted to him by the thousand familiar gestures that clothe them, so to speak, in the same way that the spirit informs the body and is expressed by it. Education does not consist in receiving a lesson from afar, which may be learned by heart and recited, thanks to a good memory, but in the daily contact and inviting example of adult life, which is mature, confident, and sure of its foundations; which asserts itself simply by being what it is, and presents itself as an ideal; which someone still unsure and unformed, in search of fulfillment and in need of security, will progressively come to resemble, almost unconsciously and without effort.9

This educative milieu can be called by a simpler name — culture. It is that distinctively human project which is likewise the place of human formation. As we mentioned before, St. John Paul II saw culture as a decisive aspect of Christian life in the modern and ever-increasingly post-Christian world. Culture, he explained, is a specific way of man’s existing and being: “In this sense, the greatest work of culture is man himself.”10 Though we are permitted to speak of the death of cultural Catholicism, we cannot ever affirm the death of Catholic culture. So long as the faith exists, it will form culture — most specifically in man himself.11

Culture is the perennial fruit of human relationality. The question is what it is and what it expresses about how our humanity is being lived. On this point, Romano Guardini brings to bear the tragedy of our contemporary age, describing it as a nicht-kulturellen Kultur (non-cultural culture), the fruit of the nicht-humane Mensch (non-human man).12 Something has been radically altered at the anthropological level, and our present day culture lacuna bears testimony of it. What then is the answer? Recovering an attentiveness to what is naturally human — namely, “the living pattern of a spiritual reality.”13

As Guardini explains, this spiritual pattern in the heart of man develops throughout the natural progression of human life. Its central constitutive is man’s changing idea of God. Though God is eternal and unchanging, the process by which man conceives the truth of God “is a profoundly living process and therefore subject to change and growth.”14 For this reason, he needs the stability of a Catholic culture, one living and intensely formative. Within this milieu, he grows through the personalizing attention of others and allows the God-question to take form in the pattern of his human existence.  

The Primacy of the Heart

When priestly formation is conceived of as an education in the art of being human, which by its nature requires the educative milieu of a Catholic culture, we logically arrive at the primary human place — the heart. As von Balthasar wrote, the human heart is the real center of spiritual and corporeal man, arising from the utterly unique Christian mystery of personhood. For this reason, whenever the heart is opened, there is “the handing over of what is most intimate and personal,” the place of utmost vulnerability and total intimacy.15 To educate the human in us, as Giussani said, then is de facto an education of the heart.16

The heart is the place of life. To form, heal, or rehabilitate it is then to facilitate the possibility of life — not biological life but spiritual life. The Rationalism of the Enlightenment severed the heart from human reason and relegated it to the sphere of sentimentality. But, as Guardini writes, it is impossible to have a living knowledge of God when the heart and the mind remain disconnected. The reintegration creates the possibility of living thought, and from it, the supernatural potential of a living knowledge of God.

Purely intellectual activity does not lead to a living knowledge of God. It may do good and honest service, but a real awareness of the Living God will never bear the fruit of mere thinking . . . There is, however, such a thing as living thought, the kind that comes from life and returns to life, that interprets life’s experiences, brings them into relationship with one another, deepens them, and fits us for new experience. It is the kind of thinking which is sustained, permeated, and directed by all the faculties of the human spirit: contemplation, conscience, yearning, presentiment, experience of reality, or whatever else one may like to call them. When the heart is ready the spiritual eye discerns the presence of the Great Other in things and events.17

The heart then is not merely an aspect of the formative experience, but the place of encounter with the other, especially the non-aliud of God. To deny the heart is to deny the truth of humanity, namely that it is creaturely.18 From the heart arises a sense for the pattern of life, as reason comes to bear on our experience and draw forth the meaningfulness of our every moment and circumstance. 

If we endeavor this education of the heart, then we will be required to relocate human formation in the realm of the organic. As Guardini affirms, as living beings, human persons belong to the organic kingdom. What principally defines inorganic beings is their conformity to the laws of necessity. With organic beings, everything changes: the principle of life and the existence of the soul fundamentally alter how they grow and come to be. Most importantly, human beings cannot be conceived as inorganic, or even worse, as mechanical objects.

A living creature needs “more time” than does a mechanical thing. More than that, its relation to time is quite different. It must be able to “spend time” on play, and on what some people might call “unessential” things; it progresses in a round-about fashion. Digressions and pauses are as necessary to its development as is the exercise of sustained energy directed toward positive goals.19

Much of our utilitarian worldview comes to bear upon our vision of human formation. It is instinctively viewed with this mechanistic lens, according to the measure and standards of inorganic and inanimate beings. Guardini continues, with words instructive for the educator:

A man who takes as his standard the perfected forms of inanimate objects feels the behavior of living beings to be unreasonable. Compared with the machine, human beings appear unreliable and wasteful. Such a man feels the urge to re-organize things, to economize in time, energy, materials and ideas. He attempts to conform life to expediency — for the most part with the result that he cripples or even ruins the things he seeks to improve. He is unwilling to allow life to proceed along its own lines. He has no patience with it.20

In the end, education of the human, with its primacy of the heart, requires, above all else, patience. Man naturally wants things to happen quickly; in this way, he does not think like God whose being and salvific logic cannot be assessed with the measurement of time.21 On this point, von Balthasar profoundly concludes: “Hence the importance of patience in the New Testament, which becomes the basic constituent of Christianity, more central even than humility.”22

The Relational Dynamic of Self-Knowledge

Having established the truth of human formation as being an education, located in a milieu, and centered on the heart, we now turn to two last preconditions which are different in nature. If the first three described the essence of human formation, the last speak of the kind of consciousness required to put this vision of formation into practice. The first of these is an awareness about the nature of self-knowledge) the second a virtue set about how the human heart must be treated. 

Formation, as an educative experience centered on the heart, has as its first object, self-knowledge. This knowledge of self can then catalyze into self-acceptance, and ultimately into self-gift. But it begins as knowledge, as insight about the reality of oneself. In this way, much of formation is about illumination of what is given both in the person that one is as well as how they have been formed through the experience of life. As Giussani observes: “What constitutes the person is a given; it is the product of another.”23 It is givenness that matters most; and it is the role of the educator to point continually back to the source of this gift and form the response of gratitude. This pedagogy stands in radical contradiction to the ethos of self-creation, which denies a priori the givenness of human life.24

Beginning in the givenness of human life and experience, we see the constitutive logic of self-knowledge in itself: namely, that it cannot be derived through autonomous introspection, but requires relationship by necessity. If human life is gifted, then it is predetermined as relational. This means that any attempt at self-interpretation (which we call self-knowledge) would necessitate relationships. As logically as this follows, it is far from our experience, and in all honesty, from our desire. As much as we resist this temptation as Christians, it is too seductive: self-knowledge, especially when reinforced by a therapeutic or over-spiritualized culture, often becomes a protective barrier against the possible assaults of broken relationships. If we remain in a posture of self-preservation, we remain in the illusion of safety in our conscious self-awareness. But if, as Giussani proposes, the purpose of self-knowledge is not the expression of self, but the conversion of self, then we are mandated by Christ to break out of the safety of our privatized existence and re-enter the precarious ambit of human relationships.25 Self-knowledge is therefore a relational dynamic. Man cannot understand himself in himself; only with the help of others can he interpret his own existence.26 Hence the necessity of education at all.

If man cannot know himself apart from others, then the converse can be held: namely, that man cannot help others know themselves apart from knowledge of himself. These two truths mirror one another and configure education as a kind of relational dynamism. Affirming this does two things at once: it dispels the myth of objectivity in education, as well as denies the possibility of “monologue formation.” The former is a grave temptation of seminary formators: we can very easily believe that we see a man as he truly is, and that my subjectivity has nothing to bear upon that perception. As soon as one dispels the myth of formative objectivity, he realizes that the educational endeavor is mutual.

The notion of mutuality in formation does not remove the authoritative structure of seminary office, but simply reaffirms the reality of human intersubjectivity. Change is always relational — for both parties involved. If I seek to bring about a change in the humanity of another, I had better be ready for change in myself. This leads then to the latter observation, that formational or educational experiences cannot be monologues. Though so often the experience, true human formation defies this kind of pedagogy. In the words of Giussani, what characterizes and distinguishes a dialogue (as opposed to a monologue) is the unrestricted openness of both persons. “Dialogue,” he writes, “requires that I be conscious of who I am.”27

As disenchanting as it may be at first, realizing the relational dynamic of self-knowledge is profoundly liberating. The endless attempt at self-diagnosis through the evaluation of my own consciousness is an exhausting, and fruitless endeavor: we simply trap ourselves within the maze of our own interiority. In place of this, we now have the conditions of interpersonal encounter — and it is in the human encounter with another that we truly discover the meaningfulness of existence. As Julian Carron writes:

We are only truly able to understand our desires, our potential, in the face of an encounter. And the more powerful the encounter, the greater the awareness of the nature of our desire it opens up in us. Only a presence can reawaken the depths of a person’s self, the “I.” An encounter — Fr. Giussani says — is indispensable to understanding who I am.28

Encounter awakens the human heart and elicits desire. In this way, encounter is the ultimate educational moment. A relational approach to the knowledge of the heart allows the space for desire to surface; it pays attention to not just to the content of the person before him, but more specifically to the human way that they disclose themselves. In this way, we facilitate the growth of the person into their own humanity, for no one can be fully human in isolation. Without the pressure to assess, measure or articulate the person, the space is created for it to be elicited in a different and more human way. For this reason, Carron concludes: “The most insidious threat of our time is the failure to see and value the authentic stature of human desire.”29 Self-knowledge has now been recontextualized: it is no longer about the production of facts and personal statistics; it is about reawakening the heart, facilitating desire, and the possibility of communion with the other. 

Trust: The Primordial Relational Grounds

As beautiful as it is to speak of formation as education and milieu, to examine the role of the heart, and to study the nature of growth in self-knowledge, the entire project stands or falls with one word — trust. Without trust, there is no human formation. It is the primordial relational grounds, in our relationship to the personal God, as well as to all other persons.30 Human beings are created to trust in reality, to assent to it and believe in it because it is good. Skepticism, the antithesis of trusting assent, is a radically inhuman approach to existence, derived as it is from the wounded experience of mistrust.

Within the realm of seminary life, skepticism (or its ossified form, cynicism) renders formation impossible; and we need to acknowledge this limitation. For to build a formation program upon freedom (which as we have argued, is requisite to true human formation) means to risk the possibility of a failed enterprise. In this way, we need to conclude by re-appraising the virtues that make trust a living and viable option. Though there are many aspects and dimensions to this ethos, we will present only three: readiness, reverence, and vulnerability. The first two, in a sense, create the possibility of the third — the hallmark of a relationship of trust.

It is to the thought of Dietrich von Hildebrand that we are indebted for the finest contemporary exposition of readiness and reverence. As to the former, he begins his work Transformation in Christ with that iconic insight: “We must have an unconditional readiness to change in order to be transformed by Christ.”31 The deep yearning in the heart of man, which Christ elicits in the call to follow him, is essentially the desire to be changed into the new man. Hence readiness is the undeniable prerequisite for the beginning of life in Christ. As the “permanent basis” of Christian existence, it is not just a necessary disposition, it represents the “basic and relevant response to God.”32

In this way, the malleability of the ready soul “constitutes the standard criterion of our religious progress.”33 If there is any yardstick in the Christian life, it is this readiness to change.34 At first glance, readiness seems to be the right posture of the one being educated. But given what has been argued above, readiness to change is just as indispensable for the one educating as it is for the one being educated. In fact, if von Balthasar is right in saying that human perfection before God consists in readiness, then the educator must exemplify and model readiness to a far greater extent.35

Just as von Hildebrand builds his Transformation in Christ on readiness, he starts his The Art of Living with a complementary virtue — reverence. As the attitude “designated as the mother of all moral life,” reverence is the posture that first allows man to open his spiritual eyes and grasp the world of values.36 Reverence allows things to be, and subsequently to disclose themselves. Because he is acting according to the nature of things, he is free from the “cramping egotism that makes him a prisoner of himself and blind to values.”37

The grasping of values, which strikes at the heart of what is distinctively human, renders possible a deeper knowledge of things. This is all the more important in relationship with other human persons: “Reverence for the beloved one is also an essential element of every love. To give attention to the specific meaning and value of his individuality, to display consideration toward him, instead of forcing our wishes on him, is part of reverence.”38 Contrary to our initial impulse, the greater the reverence for the one being formed, the greater our knowledge of the person. It is counterintuitive: for our initial surety of our impressions instills a confidence of true perception. And it is not that it is wrong, just that it is shallow and undeveloped. Educative impressions deepen with reverence, the governess of deep knowledge. Carron speaks to this as well: “The more we are attentive to a person’s life, the more we are able to be certain about him or her.”39

In the end, the two Hildebrandian attitudes of readiness and reverence cultivate what can be called the hallmark of a trust-based, formative relationship — vulnerability. In contemporary seminary formation, we think that vulnerability is optional, a proverbial error. Vulnerability is absolutely indispensable — but it cannot come to be in a relational vacuum. It presupposes the positive experiences of the dialogical exchange between readiness and reverence. The experience arises within relationships because, as Guardini says, “trust must be tested in living.”40

In some sense, vulnerability can be defined accordingly: it is the decision of trust in the movement of life. The Latin root vulnus, meaning wounds, describes how perilous of an undertaking it is. To love anything is to render oneself vulnerable. To give your heart to anything means it will likely be broken. Only from the protective and sheltering islands of communion, true experiences where readiness and reverence reign, can one muster the courage to continue to expose one’s interiority for the possibility of communion. Giussani saw it so clearly: “The most terrible affliction of our generation,” he wrote, is the “uncertainty in relationships.” And this affliction arises from the experiences of broken trust, alienation, exposure, and suffering.41

Nonetheless, the truth of communion as the foundation of human existence can only arise when we leave the shell of our self-reliance and step out again into the arena of relational combat. And it is here that we paradoxically discover educators who do not wound but allow themselves to be wounded in love. It is this final precondition, the apex of the educational experience, that most images the God who became man in order to become vulnerable on the cross, the place of the conquest of his love. 


If the above reflections have been instructive at all, it is to help us understand the radically distinct nature of what we call “human formation.” We began with a simple observation: that before the pragmatic concerns of our assessment-based programs, we must begin with the fundamental question — how exactly does one form the humanity of a person? The question challenges us down the path of a very different methodology, one that we have yet to fully employ in contemporary seminary life. 

To arrive at this different method, we have a few touchstones, elucidated above. First, all formation is an education in the art of being human, which implicates a man’s freedom. Secondly, it occurs within the sphere of the milieu, or better put, the culture of human and interpersonal exchange. This then fixates our attention on the heart, that dramatic center whereby the battle between communion and alienation unfolds. When these three — education, milieu, and heart — are in place, we can begin to examine the relational dynamism of self-knowledge. Here we understand that certain virtues are required; namely readiness, reverence, and the vulnerability they draw forth. All of this brings us to the final and seminal conclusion: that the humanity of man will only be formed in an encounter of trust; for it is here that he arrives at the primordial relational grounds. 

We do well to hedge the human heart, a pedagogical method that affirms the humanity of the person. In the end, education is not so much about the communication of information as it is the contact and invitation of a truly human relationship. In other words, the truth of education lay not in the transference of content but in the impartation of a form — the form of being a human person. For as we have seen, the work of “in-forming” (i.e. formation) begins at the onset of human life.42 Hans Urs von Balthasar has delved deeply into the implications of this insight, seeing how the child awakens to self-consciousness: “In the mother’s smile, it dawns on him that there is a world into which he is accepted and in which he is welcome, and it is this primordial experience that he becomes aware of himself for the first time.”43

In this, the founding event of human existence, we discover the pattern of true human formation: in the movement of the thou, I become aware of the I. And in the Catholic world, we have a name for the thou — Mater Ecclesia

  1.  John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, n. 43.
  2. I am indebted to Fr Raymond Gawronski for first articulating this vision of formation.
  3. “The principal agent of priestly formation is the Most Holy Trinity, who shapes every seminarian according to the plan of the Father, both through the presence of Christ in His word, in the sacraments and in the brothers and sisters of the community, and through the many actions of the Holy Spirit.” Congregation for Clergy, Ratio Fundamentalis, n. 125.
  4. John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, n. 69.
  5. J. Ratzinger, The Yes of Jesus Christ, New York: Crossroads Publishing, 3.
  6. L. Giussani, The Risk of Education, New York: Crossroads Publishing, 7.
  7. J. Carron, The Radiance in Your Eyes, Human Adventure Books, 36.
  8. J. Hittinger, “John Paul II’s Core Teaching on Culture (1979–1980),” in Communio 48 (Summer 2021), 267.
  9. Y. Congar, The Meaning of Tradition, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 22–23. On this point, Congar is indebted to the phenomenology of Max Scheler. Cf. Vorbilder und Führer, quoted by Congar on page 23: “But long before a child comes under the influence of intentional education and instruction, by his conscious imitation, his behavior, his mode of expression, his actions and all the things he has done automatically without knowing why, he has already in him the seeds and latent organism of his future personality.”
  10. John Paul II as quoted in Hittinger, 263.
  11. When one reflects on seminary culture, it is instructive to recall John Paul’s three principles of cultural formation: priority of ethics over technology, primacy of persons over things, and the superiority of spirit over matter. Cf. John Paul II, Redemptoris Hominis, n. 16 and Hittinger, 271.
  12. Cf. R. Guardini, The End of the Modern Age, Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 87–90.
  13. R. Guardini, The Living God, New York: Pantheon, 13.
  14. Guardini, The Living God, 13.
  15. H.U. von Balthasar, Heart of the World, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 16.
  16. Giussani, Risk, 7. Likewise, Albacete, describing a moment of metanoia, gives a beautiful summation of Giussani’s educational method: “I decided to take seriously my own advice: listen to your heart; do not ignore anything; be attentive to reality” (L. Albacete, The Relevance of the Stars, Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 42).
  17. Guardini, The Living God, 73.
  18. The notion of creatureliness stands at the heart of the present challenge to live the faith in the postmodern age. In order to reject any sense of dependence and limitations, we must categorically deny our creatureliness. Cf. Guardini, The Living God, 80–81: “Our createdness is itself as it were the ‘place’ which relates us to Him, because it is the place where He, differing from His creatures in His power as Lord and Creator, loves His creatures in His power as Lord and Creator, loves His creatures and enfolds them in His Grace. In the pure and living experience of our createdness we divine Him who has created us. In the pure and living experience of the finiteness and limitedness of our lives we divine Him in whom we are, who stands on the other side of our limitations and makes the frontier between Him and us the nearness of His love.”
  19. R. Guardini, The Faith and Modern Man, New York: Pantheon, 17.
  20. Guardini, Faith and Modern Man, 18.
  21. Cf. Guardini, The Living God, 63.
  22. H.U. von Balthasar, Theology of History, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 30–31.
  23. L. Giussani, The Religious Sense (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press), 98.
  24. This ethos, in which we live and form, expresses a violent rejection of the feeling of coercive and oppressive power. Self-creation, a primal and promethean temptation, finds new vitality in our present moment because of postmodern man’s existential sense of lost freedom. How he diagnoses this problem (a narrative that implicitly denies the Christian claim) stands outside our present confines.
  25. Cf. Giussani, Risk, 91.
  26. For a brilliant and satirical study on man’s inability to interpret himself, cf. W. Percy, Lost in the Cosmos (New York: Picador), 1: “Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus, which is 6000 light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you’ve been stuck with yourself all your life.”
  27. Giussani, Risk, 94. The exegete Carbajosa speaks of this in similar words: “Because of the fact that I am a human person, I am inside this problem, and I cannot know it except on the basis of my involvement in him.” I. Carbajosa, Faith, the Fount of Exegesis (San Francisco: Ignatius Press(, 163.
  28. J. Carron, Education: Communicating One’s Self (Odessa, FL: Human Adventure Books), 43.
  29. Carron, Risk, 36.
  30. The Greek word for faith, pistis, means both “trust” and “assent.” The former is prior, meaning that because I believe in this person, I believe in this statement.
  31. D. von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press), vii. Summary given by Alice von Hildebrand in the book’s introduction.
  32. Von Hildebrand, Transformation, 9.
  33. Von Hildebrand, Transformation, 16.
  34. The irony here is that “we are not able or entitled to determine the measure of our transformation” (Von Hildebrand, Transformation, 16), meaning that the more we render ourselves ready, the less we are able to measure our existence. The yardstick becomes less useful the more we use it. All of this makes sense only in light of the truth of Mary’s fiat, the only measure of creation’s measureless yes.
  35. H.U. von Balthasar, “Spirit and Fire: An Interview,” in Communio 32 (Fall 2005), 592. In some ways, the entirety of von Balthasar’s vision of Christian existence can be viewed through the lens of readiness (understood according to his larger Ignatian framework). Cf. “The perfection of man means simply: being open for the mystery, being available for God, for his grace, for being claimed ever anew, for mission” (Von Balthasar, Spirit and Fire, 587).
  36. D. von Hildebrand, The Art of Living (Steubenville: Hildebrand Press), 3.
  37. Von Hildebrand, The Art of Living, 4.
  38. Von Hildebrand, The Art of Living, 7.
  39. Carron, Radiance, 74.
  40. Guardini, Faith and Modern Man, 33.
  41. Giussani, Religious Sense, 19.
  42. “What is a person without a form that shapes him?” For more on this, cf. H.U. von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetic, Vol. I: Seeing the Form, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 23–29.
  43. H.U. von Balthasar, Explorations in Theology, Vol. III, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 16–17: “The little child awakens to self-consciousness through being addressed by the love of his mother. This descent of the intellect to conscious self-possession is an act of simple fullness that can only in abstract by analyzed into various aspects and phases. It is not in the least possible to make it comprehensible on the basis of the formal ‘structure’ of the intellect: sensuous ‘impressions’ that bring into play a categorical ordering constitution that in its turn would be a function of a dynamic capacity to affirm ‘Being in absolute terms’ and to objectify the determinate and finite existing object that is present here. The interpretation of the mother’s smiling and of her whole gift of self is the answer, awakened by her, of love to love, when the ‘I’ is addressed by the ‘Thou’; and precisely because it is understood in the very origin that the ‘Thou’ of the mother is not the ‘I’ of the child, but both centers move in the ellipse of love, and because it is understood likewise in the very origin that this love is the highest good and is absolutely sufficient and that, a priori, nothing higher can be awaited beyond this, so that the fullness of reality is in principle enclosed in this ‘I-Thou’ (as in paradise) and that everything that may be experienced later as disappointment, deficiency, and yearning longing is only descended from this: for this reason, everything — ‘I’ and ‘Thou’ and the world — is lit up from this lightning flash of the origin with a ray so brilliant and whole that it also includes a disclosure of God. In the beginning was the word with which a loving ‘Thou’ summons forth the ‘I’: in the act of hearing lies directly, antecedent to all reflection, the fact that one has been given the gift of the reply; the little child does not ‘consider’ whether it will reply with love or nonlove to its mother’s inviting smile, for just as the sun entices forth green growth does love awaken love; it is the movement toward the ‘Thou’ that the ‘I’ becomes aware of itself. By giving itself, it experiences: I give myself. By crossing over from itself into what is other than itself, into the open world that offers space, it experiences its freedom, its knowledge, its being as spirit.”
Fr. John Nepil About Fr. John Nepil

Father John Nepil is a priest of Denver, Colorado and a member of the priestly association of the Companions of Christ. Having finished a doctorate in dogmatic theology at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce in Rome, he is now a member of the academic and formation faculty of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.


  1. Avatar Oliver Clark says:

    The heart as having faith is not primary but is inseparable and qualitatively equal with thinking or reason.

  2. Avatar Johh Michael says:

    A good article….. But far too long. Prune your words Father so that what you write is more accessible. Jm.

  3. Avatar Oliver Clark says:

    That “the great majority of sacramental marriages are invalid” (Pope Francis 15 June 2016) includes consecrated celibate marriages of Dominicans who do not include ‘qualitatively equal’ with “inseparable” for union and procreation in marriage as not included in HV, 1968, 12. Pope Francis corrected this in his own case on 10 June 2021 by his accountability and amends in the cases of his Vatican state Cardinal Becciu + 9 and as Primate of Italy the Italian state Parliament “Zan” bill.